Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Kyle Juszczyk joins the 49ers’ unsung hero in Week 20

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When the San Francisco 49ers needed a running back to help them defeat the Dallas Cowboys and tick down the clock on their way to a Week 20 win, Kyle Shanahan didn’t turn to Christian McCaffrey, his former All-Pro back , who chose him for 1,000 yards in his first season in the gold and red, but instead Elijah Mitchell, the 2021 sixth-round pick Louisiana, who spent two stints with IR in 2022.

While Cowboys fans might have been confused by that decision given the game was still very late in the fourth, it was a no-brainer for the 49ers to give Mitchell the ball since the pro is sort of an “X factor” for a sophomore the team, as Kyle Juszczyk pointed out in his post-game media session.

“Elijah gives us a different look,” Juszczyk said of the 49ers WebZone. “It’s huge. Elijah is a real X-factor. When he comes in fresh and takes the pressure off Christian like that and brings that strength and tenacity, he never hesitates. It’s one of my favorite attributes about him that he just goes out there and hits it. And this one Double Strike kills. It really is.”

Facing a Dallas defense that many, including McCaffrey, have called one of the best the Niners have faced all season, Mitchell actually led all players, regardless of team, in rushing yards at 51, averaging 3, 64 yards on each of his 14 carries. Although Mitchell may not receive the same international recognition as McCaffrey and is the 49ers’ clear RB2, Mitchell proved John Lynch’s decision to bring Jeff Wilson to Miami as he has proven to be a more than capable second striker.

The 49ers’ quick effort against the Cowboys in Week 20 was, shall we say, inconsistent. Typically one of the fastest running teams in the NFL, finishing eighth in the regular season with 2,360 yards according to the Pro Football Reference, the Niners were grounded to less than 100 yards against Dallas and didn’t really get going until the second Half.

When asked what the Niners have changed in his media session from Q1 to Q2, Shanahan gave an honest take on his playcalling decisions.

“We haven’t changed much,” Shanahan said. “We just kept shuffling runs and breaking a few, getting a few lanes. I don’t know, I think we had about eight runs or something in the first half, I forget, but we didn’t have a lot of chances with that. Just play calls, and if you run the ball and don’t get first downs running the ball, that usually happens. In the second half, especially on that long drive, it was like 13 games or so, we had a bunch of first downs as we put the ball up first and second and when you do that it’s easier to get on to stay. If you do that, then it’s easier to wear them down. That’s a really good D-line and they move so much they’re hard to block, but if you can wear them down a bit you have a chance and it took us everyone to do it.”

In the NFL, it’s a lot easier to run the ball when a team is ahead. After taking the lead at halftime, the 49ers were the beneficiaries of a second poor pick from Dak Prescott, driving the momentum all the way to a one-way ticket to South Philadelphia for the NFC Championship game.

Looking for another perspective on the 49ers’ volatile offense, reporters asked McCaffrey what he thought of Dallas’ defense. Fresh from his first ever NFC Championship appearance, McCaffrey praised Dan Quinn’s unit for their athleticism and skill before pointing out when San Francisco had the advantage.

“Yes, it’s a good defence. You play hard. They fly to the ball, they tackle well. They definitely caused us some problems early on. I was happy with the way our guys reacted and kept going game after game and had some long, really good drives in the second half that changed the momentum of the game. But it’s definitely a good defense that we played.”

Unfortunately for McCaffrey, his path doesn’t get any easier in Week 21 as the Eagles also have one of the best defenses in the NFL with an edge rusher Haason Reddick which could give Nick Bosa a run for the Defensive Player of the Year honor.

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